What role should feminism play in dance spaces?

Last week I wrote a post diagnosing 9 ways in which we subconsciously participate in sexism in our dance communities.

(You can read it here.)

This week I want to follow up on a highly related topic. I cannot address everything that needs to be done to remediate sexism. But I do want to get the ball rolling by talking about feminism — and what role it might play on and around the dance floor.

So I ask the questions: What should the role of feminism be in dances that come out of heteronormative histories? 

What can we do to promote equality and safety in our dance spaces?

First to address: what do I mean by ‘feminism’?

I mean – wanting equal rights for both genders. I mean – liberating ourselves from gender norms. I mean – being a woman who doesn’t have to be submissive and demure. I mean – being a man who doesn’t have to be the emotion-less, alpha-male breadwinner.

I know a lot of people think that feminism means something else, something more, maybe something about hating men – but they are by and large incorrect. I think my definition is probably the most broadly accepted definition by feminists and dictionary writers alike these days.

(And I do also, very much so, endorse an intersectional feminism, which means, learning from and attending to the situations of women and all people beyond white, middle-upper class women.)

Here are 15 ways in which I believe we should use feminist insights to improve the quality of our dance spaces.

1. Detach gender from lead/follow roles

As I addressed at great length in last week’s post, our communities associate men with leading – which gives them an aura of dominance, strength, and ability – and women with following – which gives them an aura of meekness, weakness, and obedience.

First, we need to do away with the idea that those things are necessarily true about being a leader or a follower on the dance floor.

Second, we should dissociate men from leading and women from following. Men can do both; women can do both. Men can be strong; women can be strong. Men can be leaders; women can be leaders. Men can be followers; women can be followers.

We can do this by discontinuing language around The Man and The Woman roles. I do that on this blog and I admit that it can be a challenge – it makes my grammar unwieldly. But I do it anyway because it’s important. Instructors can also stop addressing ‘men’ and ‘ladies’ in class and instead call them ‘leads’ and ‘follows.’ Even in classes in which all the leads are male and all the followers are female, it would still be helpful to use this terminology to help everyone subconsciously shift their gendered perceptions of the dance.

2. Ask.

Ladies: Women are used to being chased. We are used to being pursued. We are used to being asked for our attention. If we have to go up and ask men for attention in a bar or on the street, often that signals some sort of desperation (or feels like it does). At the very least, standing back and waiting for men to do the acting is simply a habit for the vast majority of us.

The reality however is that in partner dancing, any male leader whose worth even the tiniest bit of salt is ecstatic to be asked to dance. Men are turned down all night long. Even some of the best male dancers I know profess to being regularly turned down.

So being asked for anyone is actually a very pleasant experience.

If you’re afraid of asking, start safely. Ask people you know. People you’ve met in class. People you’ve danced with before. If someone has asked you to dance before, there’s a pretty good chance he enjoys dancing with you, so he is a reasonably safe bet. And if you get rejected, shrug your shoulders and move on. You have no idea what’s going on for this guy – why he might not want to dance right now. There are so many fish in this sea, just go grab another.

Men: Ask! Keep asking! And be aware of how you react to women asking you. If it turns you off, ask yourself why, and see if it has anything to do with latent, silly notions of gender normativity sitting in the back of your brain.

Also be mindful about who you ask to dance. Do you only ask women in short skirts or under a certain age? If so, you’re missing out on a whole lot of dancing – perhaps the best dancing you could get – from women who simply choose to dress humbly or who are older and have a wealth of amazing dance background. Many advanced dancers know this and actually will gravitate toward older women.

It’s also reasonably common for male leads to ignore female followers if they have sexually rejected them in one way or another. Get over it. This is both immature and signals to followers that you only value them sexually.

3. Say no.

Some people make it a rule for themselves to always say “yes” to a dance.

Some don’t want to say “yes” but do anyways because they feel uncomfortable rejecting people.

To which I can only say: bullshit.

Say no.

If you don’t want to dance with someone, for whatever reason, that’s completely fine. Personally, if I ask someone to dance, I’d rather them say “no” to me than dance with me if they’re not 100% into it. It’s like sex. I have no desire to be with someone who’s not into it.

And if you end up in a dance that you didn’t know was going to be so uncomfortable in one way or another, change it. If your leader grips your hands too tightly, shake them so they loosen up. If your leader holds you too close, back up. If your leader really doesn’t get the point and is hurting you in any way, drop their hands and walk away.  I mean it. We might have this crazy idea that we need to suffer through uncomfortable dances… but if we all communicate empathetically and like adults, it’s completely unnecessary.

4. Be okay with no.

When someone says “no” to you for a dance – this goes for everybody, but I’m particularly looking at you, fellas – accept it.

Accept it the first time they say no.

Don’t tug on their hands. Don’t say “c’mon.” Don’t give them a puppy dog face. Don’t be stroppy and storm off in a huff.

You have no idea why this person said ‘no’ to you, and it’s none of your business, anyway.

5. In fact, try to get excited about “no.”

We shame people a lot in our community for saying “no” to dances. I think this is wrong, though I do understand where that impulse comes from.

But imagine if we were all empathetic communicators, and when we said “no thank you” we still did so with love in our hearts. And imagine if those who heard the words “no thank you” were actively glad that the person was honest with them, and stood up for their own needs?

When I ask a friend to dance then notice he looks tired I am very glad that he hesitates to say “yes,” because it means I can insist he sit down and take care of himself. Sometimes we don’t get what we want, but others do. We can be glad for them (I do recognize this is easier if they are nice about it).

6. Followers: Don’t follow everything.

As you follow… as a woman or a man or whatever you like.. you don’t have to follow everything. That’s an over-simplified, rather sexist view of how the roles and genders work.

Following doesn’t have to be – shouldn’t be – blanket submission.

I prefer to think of following as an active yes. In every move of the  dance, the leader gives me an option. The leader says: here, this is what I think is cool at this moment. Don’t you agree? And 98% of the time my answer is yes. I acknowledge that this dance needs a clear lead and a clear follow in order to function. I enjoy following so much. But every once in a while something comes my way that I don’t want to or can’t do, so I simply don’t.

You don’t have to follow everything. If something makes you uncomfortable; if a leader is too close; is a move is too sexual… straight up don’t do it.

And leaders – if your follower rejects a lead, or asks for a different quality of connection or move, that should be reason to be glad, too. Don’t take it as a burn – take it as a compliment that a human being who has needs is willing to be vulnerable about them with you.

7. Women: If you don’t want to wear high heels, don’t. But do if you wanna.

A lot of women think in Afro-Latin dancing that you have to wear high heels (and/or dress a particular way) because people will think less of you otherwise.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

At the beginning, it might seem like the best dancers all wear super spikey heels and slanky outfits. But as you progress in the dance you learn that what actually happens at the very highest levels of dancing is freedom. No one cares what shoes you wear so long as you dance well.

Now, I talk a bit in this video about why you, for the sake of your technique, may want to choose to wear high heels. But I also talk about why it isn’t necessary. If you dance better in flats, wear flats.

Leaders like quality follows who connect well with them when they dance. That’s it.

8. Let same-gender partners dance together

I think probably 100% of the time I dance with other women, men come up and try to intervene. “You should be dancing with me!” “Don’t you prefer to dance with men?” “I’m here to save you from dancing with each other!”

Actually, we are very happy to be dancing with each other.

Leave same sex dances alone. If they wanted to be dancing with different genders, they would be. .

9. Learn the opposite role

It is still very common – for people to cat-call and holler…or, more usually, giggle… at same sex couples on the floor. 

This kind of behavior indicates that people think this is “weird.” If you learn the opposite role, even just a little bit, however, you will help de-stigmatize it. You will help make the dance floor a more comfortable place for people who enjoy dancing opposite roles. You will also learn what is good and what is challenging about the opposite role, and perhaps develop more empathy and respect for people who ordinarily dance it.

10. Dance with people who have learned the opposite role

It’s reasonably common for women to dance with women. Just like with sexuality, we in the West find this fairly acceptable. We do objectify it—men will watch with lustful eyes and make lewd comments—but we accept it, most of the time.

It’s much less common for men to dance with men. And it’s quite common for men to feel very nervous or even repulsed by the idea of dancing with other men.

I understand that we all grew up in a culture in which cis-heterosexual men are not supposed to have any kind of physical contact or emotional intimacy with other men. But this is wrong, and times are changing. Other men aren’t an attack on your masculinity. They aren’t going to molest you. They are simply guys who enjoy following and think you might be fun to dance with.

11. Make space for your follows to contribute to the dance

Some leads give moves and expect you to follow them and that is that. And that’s great – I have no problem with this. Sometimes, all I ever want to do is follow, follow, follow. I do enjoy that aspect of following – the “obedience.” If you are a musical leader, I will be happy as a clam.

Other leads, however, think about ways to draw their followers into the creativity of the dance. They might give them space to shine, or pause on a few beats to let them improvise, or listen to their bodies and their movements to come up with leads better suited to them (to be clear, the followers still don’t have to take up the offer if they don’t want).

Both methods are great but only the second one feels empowering. Only the second is co-creative. Only the second makes you feel enchanted by your follower’s brilliance. If you lead, perhaps consider thinking about how you can listen better to your follower to meet them where they’re at.

12. Take stock of who you patronize 

Many of us (most likely all of us) have a subconscious preference for male instructors, DJs, and promoters. This comes from Western culture at large, from the culture of dance specifically, and also from the natural tendency to give deference to the lead in the lead/follow dynamic.

But female organizers in the scene can also be super talented, super smart, and super badass. Ask yourself: Which instructors do you like the most? Which DJs? Do you think that there may be some subconscious sexism lurking in your preferences? Try deconstructing your views and giving female experts more of a shot.

13. Communicate

One important thing we can do to help create safe spaces for each other is to communicate openly, honestly, and empathetically.

This means off the floor – such as when we have discussions about feminism, or when your friend informs you that you drunkenly took advantage of her while dancing the night before.

It also means on the floor – such as when your leader dips you but you have a bad back, or when you’re feeling drained and would like to have a more simple dance.

If we can all respect each other’s opinions and desires, and support one another, than we can help everyone take care of themselves as well as better connect with one another.

14. Emote

At the heart of feminism is the desire to erode gender norms. A part of that is telling men that they don’t have to be cold, burly, manly, or whatever. Women don’t have to be anything specific, either. We can simply be human beings. We can have emotions. We can be vulnerable.

So much of what holds us back from expressing ourselves when we dance or truly connecting with our partners is fear. Fear of being rejected. Fear of letting go. Fear of appearing silly. Fear of doing traditionally female things like displaying emotions. I see people holding back on dance floors all over the place.

Daring to emote while you dance – to really express yourself or to really emotionally connect with your partner – can help you break your own walls. It can teach you that it really isn’t all that scary. In fact, it’s actually quite thrilling – to be personal, exposed, and vulnerable in the company of strangers.

15. Take care of one another 

It should go without saying, but we should all want the best for one another, and should stick up for each other. I have altogether too often (really, multiple times) been sexually assaulted by a friend at a congress and had others just sit back and watch. Of course I can fight  for myself, but if we were all on the same page together about supporting each other’s autonomy, it would be much harder for those of us too drunk on booze or dance to take advantage.

I think this also means calling each other out on shitty behavior in our day to day lives. Sometimes we don’t treat each other all that well, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we are disrespectful. Sometimes we are judgmental. Sometimes we are dismissive, or treat people with indifference to their feelings. We should of course try to not be these things. When we suck at that, though, if our friends called us out, we would be held to a higher standard of respect both on and off the dance floor.


Or something. 🙂


And… that’s my list. These are the insights I believe feminism has to bring to our dance communities, and the ways in which they can help bring about a more safe – and exciting – space, for all of us.

I am super curious about what you might think about this. Let me know in the comments or elsewhere. <3

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